For many journalists, public relations agents are the used car salesmen of the communications industry.
They will do what it takes to get you to buy a story pitch – supply you with experts, find case studies, put you in touch with the company’s CEO. They’re friendly and kind, and some of them want to be your best friend. They’ll send you free goodies.
And you might have to reject quite a few lemons before getting a worthwhile story pitch.
PR agents will try to tempt you into buying their line in a number of ways, including freebies – a coffee mug, a mouse pad, a nice dinner, even a free trip.
But the most valuable gifts that PR agents make to reporters are the story ideas themselves.
“Sometimes you’re bound to your desk,” said Elizabeth Donald, reporter at Belleville, Illinois-based Belleville News-Democrat. “Then it’s very valuable to hear from PR people because it’s the only way to find out what’s going on.”
Most journalists are confronted with public relations professionals in the course of their work, sometimes on a daily basis. The relationship between reporter and public relations person is a difficult one, but, if used appropriately, it can enhance the reporter’s coverage.
The danger, of course, is being influenced by the agendas that many public relations workers bring to the table.
In the books “Toxic Sludge is Good for You” and “Trust Us, We’re Experts,” PR Watch staffers Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber examine the ways that PR agencies use front groups and other deceptive tactics to manipulate the media and public opinion.
“You can look at the whole history of PR for the tobacco industry, and it’s been one lie and deception after another,” said Rampton, who also is editor of PR Watch. “And there are quite a few other industries out there that benefit from making harmful practices look good – some of the leading PR firms are making a lot of money representing just those types of companies.”
A HELPFUL SOURCE
But not all PR agents represent those types of companies – and when PR agents represent ethical companies, they can act ethically themselves, Rampton said.
It’s wrong to say that PR work by its nature is deceptive, he added. For example, he recently spoke to a group of PR folks working for community colleges.
“If you’re representing community colleges, you don’t really have any need to deceive someone about what you’re doing,” he said. “You’re basically an intermediary for the community between people who want to get some job training and people in business who want to make sure they have adequate skills to draw on when they need to hire employees.”
don’t do themselves any favors by looking down on PR folks,” said Al Cross, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and political writer and columnist at the Louisville Courier-Journal. “We all have our roles to play. Just because our role is recognized in the Constitution doesn’t mean that we have an ethical advantage over other professionals that we deal with.”
In fact, he said, working with good PR people could help a story because they know how to make the case for their side in an understandable way.
Beth Gianforcaro works for the Ohio Department of Education and has been a public information officer for the past 16 years. She estimates that she has given thousands of interviews to reporters during that time.
“I have always tried to be respectful of the work that reporters need to do and not put them – or myself – in a compromising position about lunches, dinners, gifts, et cetera,” she said.
In return, she said, she usually finds reporters to be understanding when she has to make follow-up phone calls to make sure they received press releases.
In trying not to compromise reporters with gifts, she is following one of the guidelines of the public relations code of ethics.
The Public Relations Society of America, the world’s largest organization for public relations professionals, has nearly 20,000 members worldwide, representing business and industry, technology, counseling firms, government, associations, hospitals, schools, professional services firms and nonprofit organizations.
The PRSA has a tough code of ethics that requires members to be open and honest, avoid the use of gifts to manipulate journalists, disclose sponsorships, and refuse to work with clients that demand unethical behavior.
“Ethics has to be considered as one of the most important aspects of the profession,” said Chuck Wood, the PRSA’s chairman of the board of ethics and professional standards. He also is director of PR for the Omaha World-Herald. “Honesty, truth and fairness are the very core of the ethical practice of public relations.”
The PRSA decided in 2000 to eliminate the provisions of the code that relates to enforcement.
“We’re trying to inspire ethical behavior and performance, as opposed to finding someone to punish,” Wood said.
The code still retains a clause that says that if a member is sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in court of an action that is in violation of the code, then that member may be expelled from the PRSA. However, Wood said, he has never heard of this happening.
GOING BEYOND THE SPIN
Even when PR pitches are used only to get ideas for stories, however, there is still the problem of letting PR dictate the subject matter that a publication will cover. Here, editors must step in and ensure that PR-suggested stories are stories that the publication would have covered on its own anyway, and that these kinds of stories don’t drive out other, better stories.
At Logistics Management Magazine, senior technology editor James Cooke said that PR agents pitch hundreds of stories a year. But he puts them under very tight scrutiny before giving the go-ahead for a story – and, as a result, only one or two a year become articles.
“Most of the pitches we get from PR agencies are not that valuable,” he said. “They’re out to sell their client, so a lot of times they’re off the mark, they’re not geared toward our audience. And if a pitch is geared toward our audience, the company that they’re talking about sets restrictions, so it’s a no-go.”
Instead, writers get most of their story ideas from going to conferences or calling on industry contacts, Cooke said.
One place to find alternative points of view is “former anybodies”, said Point Park College journalism professor Dane S. Claussen. These include former employees, former stockholders, former customers, former donors, and former voters.
And, for local news, he suggested finding community gadflies or busybodies who go to meetings and read documents.
Donald, from the Belleville News-Democrat, suggests calling competitors to “reality check” a story suggested by a PR representative.
For example, she often gets calls from local hospitals about new programs, she said.
“First thing I always tell them is to send me a press release,” she said. “That way, I know they’re serious. Then, I’d want to call other hospitals and say, ‘What do you guys think? Are you guys doing this?’ “
Here are a few other tips that reporters suggested when working with PR people:
• Try a local angle. When working on a story sparked by a national-level PR pitch, when national-level expert sources are provided as part of the pitch, Donald said she works around these experts by localizing the story.
“We have a strong emphasis at my paper on local news,” she said. “Everything has to be localized. I have to find out what people here are thinking and how it’s going to affect them. For example, I’m working on a story on the vaccine shortage. I’ve got some PR stuff – experts and all that. But I have to talk to people at the local level, at the clinics.”
• Be persistent with your questions. When interviewing, Donald said, she found that a common PR tactic is to answer a completely different question than the one asked. One way to deal with this is to be persistent, Donald said.
“Sometimes over the course of the interview, I ask the same question four different ways to get around the block they put up for you,” she said. Eventually, it’s possible to wear them down and get either a straight answer or an admission that they’re not going to answer that question.
• Find the right sources. Some PR departments interpose themselves between journalists and the people they want to talk to, making it difficult to find the right information.
“I’ve found in some government agencies, they require all public comment to come from the public information officer,” said Donald. “If caught at his desk, Mr. Bureaucrat will pass the buck to the poor PR guy, who will then have to call Mr. Bureaucrat back to get an answer to my question. This grown-up version of the kids’ game of Telephone is not only time-wasting and ridiculous, but can lead to misunderstandings on all parts that can cause errors to appear in the newspaper.”
The answer to this problem is to develop multiple lines of information into a company, said Martha Steffens, a professor of business and financial journalism at the University of Missouri.
“All good reporters maintain different levels of contact with any entity they cover,” she said. “They know a worker in the building as well as mid-level managers, and they have an opportunity to meet with the CEO on occasion.”
She also reminded journalists to not forget about a company’s Web site, which often is rich with information – particularly in the “investor relations” sections.
• Get the story without the spin. In some companies, PR representatives sit in on all interviews with the press.
“It makes the interview harder because executives will censor themselves,” said Marc Emral of The Community Press. “I’ve also had the experience that the PR person answered the questions. Other times, the executives would look at the PR person before answering, as if to get some kind of signal on how to answer.”
There are some benefits to having PR representatives sit in – a journalist can ask the PR person to look up answers to question that the executive can’t answer, send along press releases, white papers and other documents that the executive refers to, and provide publicity photographs.
“It’s good to have a second pair of ears,” added Tom Stundza, executive editor of Purchasing Magazine. “If I’m interviewing the CEO of Delphi Automotive Systems, it’s nice to have someone there as backup if I have a question on an answer that I took down in my notes. I don’t use a tape recorder – I’m an old-fashioned journalist – so I don’t mind having the PR professional sitting in and taking notes.”
However, he said, this only applies to interviews with top-level executives, where PR people sit in as a matter of course.
“If I’m talking to one of the guys who buys steel plate – I wouldn’t even tell the PR flack I’m talking to him,” Stundza said.
• Look to inside PR people for more knowledgeable answers. Another PR-related issue involves the difference between in-house PR staffs and outside agencies, said Logistics Management Magazine’s Cooke.
As a general rule, Cooke said, inside staffs are most helpful because they have the best contacts within the company and have more information. Outside agencies are often retained for the express purpose of pitching stories or to work on specific projects – and don’t have the same depth of knowledge, contacts, or experience with that company.
“They often don’t provide any value,” Cooke said.
He’s had better luck with inside PR staffs, though.
“If I call them up, ask a question or request a graphic, they respond promptly,” he said. “But they retain an outside agency to push stories on us. Why would I go to an outside agency when I could go to the in-house PR staff, which is more knowledgeable?”
The outside agencies just add another level of intermediation, he said – while the best approach is to cut out as many of the middlemen as possible. That’s why the magazine encourages its writers to develop direct relationships with the executives in the industries it covers and to call them directly for stories.
• Protect the integrity of the story. Some PR representatives, when setting up an interview, demand to see the final story before it goes into print.
Computerworld business editor Tom Hoffman says his reporters sometimes get this request. If a source refuses to talk without pre-approval, the Framingham, Mass.-based computer industry newspaper is willing to compromise – but only to a certain extent.
“We won’t send them a full copy of the story, but we will send them, say, an e-mail with any quotes of attributions that they have in the story,” Hoffman said. “We’ll spell it out for them up front that if there are any factual changes that need to be made, we’ll accept those, but we won’t accept any editorial or style changes to copy.”
Maria Trombly is a free-lance business and technology journalist.